Your Step-by-Step Guide to Heuristic Evaluation in UX Design

Dawn Schlecht, contributor to the CareerFoundry blog

Ever wondered what a heuristic evaluation is?

In this article we’ll be taking at look at what exactly UX designers mean by the term heuristic evaluation, how to conduct a heuristic evaluation for yourself, what to do if you can’t afford a usability expert, and the difference between a heuristic evaluation and user testing. You can tap on any of the links below to jump to the respective section. So, let’s get started!

  1. What is a heuristic evaluation in UX design?
  2. How to conduct a heuristic evaluation
  3. What if you can’t afford to hire usability experts?
  4. The difference between heuristic evaluation and user testing
  5. Final thoughts
  6. Further reading

1. What is heuristic evaluation in UX design?

A heuristic evaluation is a way to test whether a website is user friendly. In other words, it tests the site’s usability. Unlike user-testing, where the site (or prototype) is evaluated by users, in a heuristic evaluation the site is evaluated by usability experts. That’s why you’ll sometimes find it referred to as an “expert review”.

Heuristics can be thought of as rules of thumb. A heuristic evaluation or expert review of a web or mobile site is based on a set of predetermined heuristics or qualitative guidelines. While there are 200+ criteria by which a site can be evaluated, many experts’ questions are based on usability heuristics. Here’s a concise summary for you.

  1. Visibility of system status: The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.
  2. Match between system and the real world: The system should speak the users’ language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.
  3. User control and freedom: Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked “emergency exit” to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.
  4. Consistency and standards: Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform conventions.
  5. Error prevention: Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action.
  6. Recognition rather than recall: Minimize the user’s memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.
  7. Flexibility and efficiency of use: Accelerators—unseen by the novice user—may often speed up the interaction for the expert user such that the system can cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. Allow users to tailor frequent actions.
  8. Aesthetic and minimalist design: Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.
  9. Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors: Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.
  10. Help and documentation: Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user’s task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.

Using these established guidelines for best-usability-practices, you can either design your own set of review questions or find some that have already been written and tweak them to your liking. If you’re looking to do a thorough site review, you may want to take a look at David Travis’ 247 Web Usability Guidelines. User Focus uses these guidelines when working with their clients. The questions are detailed yet written in plain language.

Image showing a mock-up of a digital screen with chat bubbles

2. How to conduct a heuristic evaluation

In companies which have the resources, it’s recommended that the site be tested by at least three usability experts. After a set of guidelines are agreed upon, each usability expert reviews the site separately. Nielsen recommends having someone who is familiar with the site act both as a recorder and be able to answer any clarifying questions the reviewer may have of the site, increasing the efficiency of the review.

Afterwards, you’ll want to compile, review and prioritize the data from the three reviewers. The benefit of having multiple reviewers is that although they will likely catch many of the same errors, they each will likely find some the others have missed. And the number three is important because, although with more people reviewing the site you may find more errors, it’s not likely to be statistically significant.

3. What if you can’t afford to hire usability experts?

Freelancer designers or those working in nonprofits or small start-ups may not have the luxury of hiring 3 usability experts. Is it possible to do a heuristic evaluation on your site yourself? In her book, The User Experience Team of One, Leah Buley describes a similar but slightly more informal method of reviewing the usability of a site called Heuristic Markup that could come in handy.

In a heuristic markup, you set aside several hours to walk through the product yourself. Take yourself through the product, from beginning to end, as you think a user might do. You might try using one of your personas and/or thinking of the journey your users may take through the site as they try to accomplish specific tasks.

Leah suggests taking a screenshot of each step of the journey, pasting it into a PowerPoint and then making notes of your observations, while you are in your user’s mindset. Make note, also, she says, of your reactions as you go through the site. Your slides will be an easy way to share your findings when you are finished.

Graphic representation of icons across a web page

4. What’s the difference between heuristic evaluation and user testing?

A heuristic evaluation can be used at any stage of a site’s development, including in the early stages when developing paper prototypes. Nielsen recommends using it in conjunction with user testing. Administering the heuristic evaluation before user testing allows many of the ‘obvious’ errors to be caught before engaging in time-consuming and expensive user testing. Both will largely uncover different insights and errors to be corrected. Ideally, you would want to do both at several different stages of development. As the more obvious problems are discovered and solved the less-odious ones will be easier to spot and correct.

5. Final thoughts

So, back to our original question: What is a heuristic evaluation in UX? It’s a way to check the site against a predetermined set of usability guidelines thereby affording your users a better experience using your product. It should be used in conjunction with user testing, early, and often. And if you don’t like the word heuristics (I’m kind of warming up to it now), you can always make up your own name as is prevalent in this field. How does Usability Review sound to you?

6. Further reading

If you’d like to learn more about UX design principles, sign up for this free UX design email short course. You’ll get a daily email with useful exercises and tips to get you started. I’m also including a couple of links I found useful, maybe you will too.

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